Book review: Flight Behaviour

16:00, Dec 22 2012
Flight Behaviour, a new novel by Barbara Kingsolver

FLIGHT BEHAVIOUR Barbara Kingsolver Allen & Unwin $39.99

Barbara Kingsolver, the lauded American novelist, essayist, environmentalist, poet and occasional pianist in that literary rock'n'roll band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, has been critically acclaimed and popularly read since the publication in 1988 of her first novel, The Bean Trees.

Since then, she has published 14 books, including Prodigal Summer, about the effect of ecological damage on subsistence farming in Appalachia; The Poisonwood Bible, which chronicled the experience of a southern missionary family caught in the post-colonial strife of the Belgian Congo; Animal, Vegetable and Miracle, written with her husband and daughter about their year of living on locally grown foods; and Orange Prize-winning The Lacuna, which invented a character who spent his formative years in Mexico with the likes of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky, only to later eloquently defend himself before the anti-Communist Un-American Activities Committee.

Although Kingsolver has shied away from autobiography, declaring that "prolonged self-revelation seems discourteous", she believes the writing of fiction is nonetheless "a dance between truth and invention".

As a result, her body of work has mingled the personal and political with her extensive travelogue, strong sense of social and environmental justice and love of landscape.

Just in time for the New Zealand summer, Kingsolver has written a work of great prescience, humour and strange beauty entitled Flight Behavior.


Set in Tennessee, it chronicles the dramatic journey of one tiny restless red-haired woman, Dellarobia Turnbow, shotgun married at 17 and now the mother of two young children, Cordelia and Preston.

Dellarobia is blessed with irony and brains, but is bored in her marriage to Cub, the son of Bear and his controlling wife, Hester, sheep farmers on whose property they live, forever paying for that obsequious privilege.

(New Zealand readers will be pleased to read realistic scenes of lambing, herding and drenching.) What saves Dellarobia, who thinks she has been named by her deceased parents after a Christmas wreath and not a Renaissance sculptor, is her friendship with spunky Dovey and her numerous flirtations with transient young hunks.

It is during a hike up a forested mountain for a secret tryst that she comes upon the psychedelic sight of millions of migrating monarch butterflies.

"Every bough glowed with an orange blaze . . . No words came to her that seemed sane. Trees turned to fire, a burning bush. Moses came to mind, and Ezekiel.

"Burning coals of fire went up and down among the living creatures."

Amazed by this revelatory encounter, she turns back. The tryst is never consummated and her life becomes the subject of national curiosity as this "vision of butterflies" is seen by her small, religious community as a miracle, while scientists descend, seeing the strange migratory invasion as another example of climate change.

They trace this colony of monarch butterflies to Angangueo, Mexico, where they escaped the catastrophic flooding of their traditional winter habitat.

As the world invades Dellarobia's Appalachian homestead in the form of television journalists (in search of a good story and not the truth), religious preachers (wiser than you think) and scientists (perceived and portrayed as brilliant but maligned prophets), she sees not only her escape, but the opportunity for a future she believed she had thrown away when she became pregnant.

What distinguishes Kingsolver's vision is that this societal osmosis works both ways.

The environmental protesters and graduate students not only bring the promise of the world to Dellarobia, but they are similarly transformed by her self-sufficient native intelligence and homegrown humour.

In this way, Kingsolver has created a microclimate that mimics many of the cultural, religious, sectarian and scientific collisions that inspire and stalemate American culture.

My personal bugaboos with this very accomplished and frequently funny novel are its length - it reads fluidly but still feels very long - and the proselytising declarations of Dr Ovid Byron, the chief ecologist who seems a strange combination of President Barack Obama and Sebastien the Carribean crab from Disney's The Little Mermaid. Having said that, I applaud Kingsolver's ability to tell a compelling story that bears such an important ecological message.

Sunday Star Times